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Building blocks for success with elephants

Building blocks for success with elephants

Teacher readiness series #5

I’m not nearly as concerned about student readiness for school as I am about teacher readiness.  As teachers we want our students to be successful.  Part of their success will be our planning activities in such a way that the activity or learning makes sense and works for our students as well as for us.  We will focus on particular activities in the next article.  In this article we will talk about the elephant in the room.  The elephant in every classroom is the atmosphere for accomplishment that we create for our students by our own habits and our unique approach to learning and classroom management.  I will refer to myself as the elephant in my classroom.  Whether you adopt this perspective of yourself may depend on what you think after reading the rest of this article.

As the elephant in the room I bring in a boatload of habits and approaches that I may have never thought about.  All of these habits and approaches have a definite effect on the learning atmosphere.  Does my classroom seem loud?  Some of us as teachers don’t realize that the louder we are, the louder our students are.    My experience has shown me that my students will tend to be, on average, a bit louder than I am.  Our natural response to get our students attention is to shout over the hubbub.  My experience has also shown me, that especially with primary students, the way to get attention is to lower your voice or use a novel voice.  When this happens, students tend to quiet down and tune in to hear what is going on.

Another example is that in some ways I enjoy flying by the seat of my pants, and if I am a not careful, I can have a classroom that looks like we are all flying by the seat of our pants.  One common problem in this approach is that we often don’t actually see if projects work before we do them.  We have a set of instructions, we have a set of materials, what could go wrong?  So without having ever done the activity we launch, only to find there are steps out of sequence and the class disintegrates into “Mr. Doughty, I can’t…I can’t….I can’t…”  15 minutes later we ditch the project to listen to a book with the learning goal torpedoed and sunk.

Please imagine for a moment that our classroom is a reflection of us as teachers.  This shouldn’t be hard as there is a neurological basis for this in that we have a group of neurons in our brains called mirror neurons.  Just like they sound, these neurons create the ability and the tendency for children to mirror or mimic what they see.  Take a moment to reflect, does my class seem disorganized?  If so, consider what does my desk look like?  Is my classroom louder than I would like?  How loud am I?  Do my students bend the important rules?   Am I an important rule bender?  Are my students critical of each other?  Am I critical of certain students?  Many of us would respond, “I never criticize my students.”  Note that I didn’t specify in the classroom.  Too many of us are critical of our students away from our classroom, and that creates an attitude within us, and no matter how we try to hide that attitude in the classroom, it still shows in subtle ways.

I feel very safe in saying that what you see in your students is in some ways a reflection of what you are showing them.  This is the elephant in the room.  As teachers we almost never ask our students to critique us, and we don’t often think about how our habits affect student learning in our classroom.  Because of this our unique habits and approaches for teaching in the classroom (which have huge influence) rarely get talked about, which is the definition of the elephant in the room.

We should be unique in aspects of our teaching, and please don’t get lost in self-evaluation.  Being ourselves can be a great inspiration to particular students who are attracted to our style.  However we should take a glance in the mirror especially when we are bothered by some characteristic of our classroom.  It could be that we are contributing to our students’ problems, and in doing so we are limiting their success.  If we suspect that we might be a contributing cause, it might be good to ask a colleague for their opinion and advice.  If you ask the question demonstrating a sincere desire to learn, you might be pleasantly surprised at how much help your professional friends can provide.

Is it possible that at times you and I are the elephants in our classrooms?

Rick Doughty is a parent of three young adults and the Vice President of Administrative Services at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. His wife Sally is a second grade teacher at a Title I school in Beaverton, Oregon. Rick is a Certified Trainer in brain-based learning through the Jenson Learning Corporation and has a master’s degree in communication studies. His passion is helping to make complex material and ideas useful and understandable. This passion is reflected in his book Fulfilled Kids, Fulfilled Parents which takes principles from neuroscience and helps us put them to use in parenting.

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